The New G.I. Bill Revisited

Now that the drama of, and the headlines-grabbing by, the Democratic primaries are over, perhaps Americans can focus again on the other important issues facing us. Issues such as the economy, the war in Iraq, and vital legislation languishing in Congress.

One of these pieces of important legislation is the new G.I. Bill. That is the upgraded G.I. Bill sponsored by Senators James Webb, (D-Va), and Chuck Hagel, (R-Neb). A bill that enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, and one that would begin to restore educational benefits to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, similar to the benefits that were enjoyed by our World War II veterans under the original 1944 GI Bill.

While 75 U.S. Senators have voted for this bill–neither Senator McCain nor my Texas Senator Cornyn were among them–and while an overwhelming majority of Representatives, including my Representative Lloyd Doggett, have voted in favor of it, “support-the-troops” President Bush continues to threaten that he will veto this bill.

Hopefully, this bill will come up for a final vote this week of June 9th. Hopefully, patriotism and our debt and duty to truly support our troops who are sacrificing, and who have already sacrificed so much will prevail over partisanship, petty and misplaced penny-pinching, and disingenuous opposing arguments.

As a Vietnam war era veteran who has benefited so much from the previous G.I. Bill, I wrote a piece on TMV a couple of weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend. That article, “Let us truly honor our fallen heroes this memorial Day,” perhaps reflected more my passion to get this better G.I. Bill passed than the cold hard facts, and the raw politics being used by those who oppose it.

Fortunately, a few days ago, I came across a column written by none other than Edward Humes, which more than makes up for my lack of facts and more than fills-in-the blanks when it comes to the politics involved.

I say, none other than Edward Humes because Mr. Humes is a journalist and prolific author who in 1989 received the Pulitzer Prize for specialized reporting for several investigative stories he wrote about the U.S. Military. In 2006, he literally “wrote the book” on the G.I. Bill with his “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.” A book that tells how the post-World War II G.I. Bill ” revolutionized higher education, created suburbia, brought us the scientists, engineers, doctors, artists and teachers who built most of what is good in America today.”

While Humes mainly questions Senator McCain’s opposition to the G.I. Bill (“Why would a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, a man who is personally acquainted with the difficulties vets can face in returning to civilian life, join President Bush in opposing a popular bipartisan bill to support the troops?”), he offers many other thoughts and compelling arguments. Here are some excerpts from his May 30 column in the Los Angeles Times, “McCain’s Attack on Vets– His respectful rhetoric isn’t matched by his votes“:

“Isn’t fixing the education benefit in the bill — one that has shortchanged far too many veterans for years — a political no-brainer in an election year? The 75 senators who recently voted for it certainly thought so”

“The original GI Bill — signed into law in 1944 — was one of the most important laws every adopted by Congress. It transformed the nation after World War II in epic fashion, with generous college benefits, stipends, subsidized mortgages, business loans and job training and placement.”

“Veterans got free rides to any college that would accept them. Tuition, books, housing and living expenses were all covered, giving rise to a new generation of scientists, inventors, teachers, doctors, civic leaders and artists. Low-interest, no-money-down home loans backed by the government made it cheaper to buy than to rent. Suburbia, widespread homeownership, college as a majority aspiration, the middle class — all were built on the back of the GI Bill.”

“Today’s GI Bill, however, is a pale shadow of the original, particularly when it comes to college, as Congress has not kept the benefits in line with the rising cost of higher education. The World War II-era living stipend is gone; in its place, members of the military must agree to a $100 monthly payroll deduction to receive the college aid. An education benefit that sent WWII vets to Yale now won’t cover four years at the average public university, though many recruits don’t understand this when they sign up.”

McCain and others who oppose the Webb-Hagel version of the G.I. Bill have said that too-generous education benefits will hurt retention as enlistees will leave for college after their initial enlistment commitment rather than continue to serve. This is what Humes has to say about that:

“McCain’s position makes sense only by overlooking the fact that the main retention (and recruiting) problems facing the military are the Iraq war and the scandals plaguing military and veterans healthcare.” “The inadequacy of the military’s prime recruiting tool — subsidized college educations — is hurting recruitment too, and Webb argues this can be fixed only by fixing the GI Bill. He says McCain, a friend, ‘is missing the boat’ by siding with the Bush Pentagon rather than veterans groups. Webb points to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that found any possible losses in retention caused by his bill would be balanced by the increases in recruitment it would generate.”

On some of McCain’s other positions and arguments:

“Before the Senate voted on Webb’s GI legislation, McCain offered what he called a compromise bill, but it was rejected. Webb pointed out that there really was no compromise in McCain’s proposal because it would have excluded most veterans by offering full education benefits only to those with multiple enlistments, even though 70% to 75% of enlistees leave after one tour.”

Humes also takes a look at McCain’s record on “legislation supported by major veterans organizations” which he records as follows:

* On Webb’s GI Bill, he expressed opposition, and he was AWOL when it was time to vote on May 22.

* Last September, he voted against another Webb bill that would have mandated adequate rest for troops between combat deployments.

* On a badly needed $1.5-billion increase for veterans medical services for fiscal year 2007 — to be funded through closing corporate tax loopholes — he voted no. He also voted against establishing a trust fund to bolster under-budgeted veterans hospitals.

* In May 2006, he voted against a $20-billion allotment for expanding swamped veterans medical facilities.

* In April 2006, he was one of 13 Senate Republicans who voted against an amendment to provide $430 million for veterans outpatient care.

* In March 2004, he voted against and helped defeat on a party-line vote a $1.8-billion reserve for veterans medical care, also funded by closing tax loopholes.

As to the “it costs too much” argument, I will quote myself from my May 30 piece, “The bill is estimated to cost $45 billion [update: $52 billion] over the next 10 years. At the present rate of expenditures for the Iraq war–including the billions of dollars wasted, fleeced and not accounted for–we are talking about an amount equal to what we spend in Iraq in about six months. Is this too much to spend on our troops who are getting shot at, injured and maimed every day?”

As I first mentioned, Congress will hopefully have a final vote on the new G.I. Bill this week. I sincerely hope that Senator McCain will be present, and that he and others who are presently opposed to this good bill will have a change of mind and of heart and vote “Aye.” Our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans deserve nothing less.

  

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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